New group is raising air pollution up the political agenda

Despite parliament’s re-organisations, recesses and scandals in the last few months and weeks, there appears to be a new focus on one of the most important sustainability issues facing the UK – air pollution. This current emphasis has been generated by the recenly launched All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on the issue chaired by Greenwich MP Matthew Pennycook. The group plans to raise the profile of the issue within parliament in order to pressurise government to make real steps towards dealing with a problem that causes approximately 40,000 early deaths in the UK annually.

The group’s inaugural meeting on 7 September was well attended by MPs, NGOs, campaign groups, industry and other stakeholders. Speakers at the meeting included professor Frank Kelly from King’s College London, who outlined the health impacts of air pollution, Alan Andrews who leads Client Earth’s case against the UK on breaches in air pollution limits, councillor Heather Acton of Westminster City Council, who informed the group of Westminster’s approach to dealing with air pollution and Alaric Lester from the environmental consultancy Temple Group who explored some short-term technology options to abate emissions.

Much of the discussion highlighted the fact that the formation of the group had come at a time of mixed fortunes for the air quality community. The mayor of London Sadiq Khan has already aired some very positive rhetoric on the topic and the looming mayoral elections across the rest of the UK’s cities mean that pressure has scarcely been higher on government to improve its air quality record. However, Britain’s decision to leave the EU could signal a sharp decrease in political will and legal enforcement on the subject and could leave British people without the protection of important EU directives that keep the air cleaner.

These issues will likely be high on the APPG’s agenda now that it has begun its work in earnest. Commenting on the foundation of the group, Matthew Pennycook said: “60 years ago the Clean Air Act was introduced to banish coal and smoke from our skies, yet our country still grapples with toxic and illegal levels of air pollution. Air pollution is a public health crisis; an invisible hazard that contributes to the ill health and premature deaths of tens of thousands of people.

“Both the causes and solutions to the UK’s air pollution crisis are complex, but that complexity cannot be an excuse for inaction. The APPG will play a vital role in ensuring that we encourage and support effective action to tackle the problem and to challenge government and other stakeholders to be more ambitious where needed," Pennycook said.

Clearly parliament is responding to what is becoming an increasingly threatening, but thankfully better understood, public health concern. This ambitious new group looks set to bring air pollution up the government agenda.